Written by Rashmi Sharma
The faith in extreme centralisation among policymakers is visible in myriad ways in rural India: in the unused toilets now adorning the countryside because of uniform ‘sanitation’ measures undertaken across widely varying contexts; the universal promotion of resource-intensive Green Revolution technologies, including in rainfed regions; teaching Gondi-speaking tribal children in ‘standard’ Hindi; and so on. Centralised policies are followed, and decentralised bodies such as Panchayats disempowered, when there is need for a nuanced, context-specific approach and strong local institutions to operationalise even government programmes.
One reason for this obtuseness is an underlying belief that centralisation ensures accountability — that Panchayats and grassroots institution workers perform better, and are less corruption-prone, when given tight guidelines. A parallel belief is that expenditure on salaries is a ‘waste’; fewer workers should be hired and they needn’t be paid well. Consequently, grassroots institutions remain understaffed and poorly-skilled. That further buttresses faith in centralisation, as the limitations of these institutions become all too apparent.
However, a very different dynamic unfolded in a recent study of five Gram Panchayats (GP) in central India.
Though these village-level institutions were representative structures — even having mandated reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and women — they did not undertake projects as per local needs. The schemes they implemented were centrally designed, based on uniform guidelines on the width of the roads to be built, one-size-fits-all unit costs, etc. All the GPs had constructed toilets, but more than half of these were unused. The representatives of one GP in a semi-urban area complained of pressure from the top to implement works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), when the residents preferred to work for higher wages in the city. All five GPs held Gram Sabhas on dates fixed by the state government. In these general assemblies, information about government programmes was shared, but were poorly attended and with villagers having only limited opportunities to speak.
Further, the institutions themselves were poorly staffed. With just a secretary, an MGNREGA Rozgar Sahayak, a chowkidar and a sanitation worker, they were expected to plan and implement government programmes, collect taxes, run tap-water supply schemes, construct roads, and undertake general local development activities. The GP representatives — many of them daily wage workers — were also paid a pittance. As they couldn’t afford to lose a day’s wage, it wasn’t surprising that even the GP meetings had low attendance.
While all five GPs shared these common characteristics, there were also differences. Two of them functioned in a fashion that may be called the ‘norm’ in the context of extreme centralisation. They implemented government schemes routinely and there was petty corruption. The positive impact of reservations was visible in one of the two GPs: its SC/ST representatives had fought to get projects to their wards in outlying hamlets, even while the upper caste Sarpanch (head) wanted to corner all the benefits for the main village.
The third GP was totally unaccountable. The Panchayat building remained closed and no meetings of the GP or Gram Sabha took place. The person known as the Sarpanch — his wife held the post, albeit on paper — often misbehaved with villagers. Road construction was contracted out, despite it being prohibited, and the contractor paid the labourers below minimum wages. Many beneficiaries hadn’t received funds for toilet construction, yet the village was declared open defecation free. The GP’s accounts had not made available to the Panchayat Samiti or block-level office, in spite of repeated requests. The beneficiaries of government schemes were only those on ‘good terms’ with the GP officials. People had complained, but to no avail. This Panchayat illustrated the failure of centralisation to ensure accountability, notwithstanding detailed implementation guidelines and directions for schemes. Although a social audit had brought to light irregularities regarding the toilet construction programme, an effective mechanism for taking action was lacking. An independent ombudsman, acting on people’s grievances rather than detailed top-down guidelines, may have worked better.
The other two GPs, on the other hand, illustrated the highly productive new space that local governance can potentially create. One of them had been dysfunctional for 10 years, but a few villagers — that included the current Sarpanch and some representatives — decided to contest elections in order to ensure development work. Having won — with the support of not any political party, but ordinary people — they now work tirelessly in the Panchayat. The deleterious impact of centralised political control was, however, felt when the Sarpanch nearly got arrested. He had sought to provide housing to all the homeless families in the village by giving them small plots. But it led to a powerful state-level politician, who wanted bigger plots for fewer families, filing a police complaint. The Sarpanch, who initially stood his ground, had to finally give in.
The fifth Panchayat had two unusual types of representatives. One of them had participated in a radical tribal rights movement, while the other was an active member of a major women’s self-help group federation. Not only were these representatives highly motivated, they also interpreted the GP’s mandate imaginatively. Apart from undertaking the usual construction works, the Sarpanch focused on getting all residents’ names added to the voters list, correcting the below-poverty-line list, and restarting a dysfunctional tap-water scheme. He had also provided his mobile number to everybody to allow them to call anytime and save trips to the Panchayat office. But these representatives complained bitterly about the limits imposed on their effective functioning. They couldn’t take up works on culverts that the villagers needed, while being forced to plant trees that weren’t really suitable to their area.
The above study showed how centralisation came in the way of local initiative, which was most obvious in the case of the last two Panchayats. Centralisation also predisposed Panchayats to work lackadaisically, as in the first two Panchayats. The lack of technical and administrative manpower further limited what Panchayats could do. Centralisation did not lead to accountability either. What Panchayats need are not detailed guidelines, but autonomy, appropriate manpower and an independent ombudsman institution to ensure effectiveness with accountability. Just as many policymakers believe that centralisation enhances accountability, many de-centralisers, especially from civil society, oppose accountability measures because they imagine these will lead to centralisation. This confusion is toxic.